Good nutrition is a fundamental part of leading a healthy lifestyle, and it contributes in several ways to healthy sleep. Most importantly, it helps in maintaining a healthy body. Some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea , are linked to being overweight. The leading causes of death in developed countries are chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease , cancer , and neurodegenerative disease . Researchers have established that sleep and metabolism influence each other. When people get too little sleep, it leads to increased appetite and overeating, which contributes to obesity and diabetes. Metabolic imbalances are closely linked to chronic disease. Improving one’s diet is likely to improve sleep. Improved sleep, in turn, can improve how we eat.
Eating before bed is a more controversial topic. Conventional wisdom holds that snacking before bed is bad for sleep and is likely to lead to weight gain. The science on this topic is not clear cut. There doesn’t appear to be a physiological reason why eating late would cause weight gain. However, if snacking before bed represents an extra meal, then that might cause the body to store the excess energy as fat. A healthy snack before bed is fine for most people. For some people snacking before bed may even lead to better sleep.
Avoiding snacking at night can help reduce acid reflux . The stomach uses acid to digest the food, but in a lying position, the acid can more easily spill out into the esophagus, causing the reflux.
There are many people that recommend eating specific foods to enhance sleep. Popular options include cherries, grapes, elk meat, eggs, nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts) or warm milk. Is there any truth to these claims? These recommendations are usually based on the foods containing either tryptophan or melatonin . Melatonin is one of the key hormones that regulate circadian rhythms . An increase in melatonin in the evening is critical in the onset of sleep. Tryptophan is an amino acid contained in protein . It is used by the body to make the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is also a precursor of melatonin. Both melatonin and tryptophan are contained in a large number of common foods.
Tryptophan is erroneously believed to be the reason for sleepiness on thanksgiving . Turkey does indeed contain tryptophan but in quantities common to poultry. Tiredness on thanksgiving is probably related to eating large amounts of carbohydrates or drinking alcohol. Increasing tryptophan intake does appear to increase the amount of melatonin circulating in the blood. There is some evidence that decreasing tryptophan can disrupt sleep.
Melatonin supplementation is a recognized treatment for jet-lag . It is also used to treat insomnia because it might improve sleep onset latency and sleep quality, but substantial evidence of these effects is lacking .
The timing and dosage of tryptophan and melatonin significantly influence their efficacy as sleep remedies. Improving sleep requires high doses of the substances within an hour of bedtime. So attempting to increase tryptophan or melatonin through dietary means to improve sleep would likely prove impractical. It might be worth a try for someone suffering from jet-lag or acute insomnia , but supplementation would make it easier to take an effective dose.